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National Defence mum on Russian threat to shoot down planes in Syria

Last Updated Jun 19, 2017 at 3:40 pm EST

OTTAWA – There are fears Canadian military aircraft operating over Syria could be caught in the middle of a new and potentially explosive dispute between the U.S. and Russia.

Moscow warned Monday that it will track allied aircraft operating west of the Euphrates River in Syria as potential targets after the U.S. shot down a Syrian government warplane.

American officials say the Syrian jet dropped bombs near U.S.-backed forces fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — a claim the Syrian government and Russia both dispute.

The Canadian military has been flying surveillance aircraft and a refuelling plane over Syria as part of its contribution to the U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition.

But while National Defence says it is monitoring the situation, it otherwise wouldn’t comment Monday on where the Canadian planes have been flying in Syria and whether they are in any increased risk of danger.

“For operational security considerations, the Canadian Armed Forces will not disclose the frequency of the flights or the exact locations nor the details of our force protection measures and risk assessment process,” spokeman Daniel Le Bouthillier said in an email.

The previous Conservative government first deployed Aurora surveillance planes, a Polaris air-to-air refueller and six CF-18 fighter jets to participate in the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIL in October 2014.

While the planes were initially restricted to operations over Iraq, the Tories decided in March 2015 to expand the mission to include Syria as well.

The newly elected Liberal government withdrew the CF-18s the following year, but kept the other planes in the region to continue supporting fighter jets from the U.S. and other allied countries.

A senior military officer told The Canadian Press during a visit to the region in February that the Auroras and Polaris had flown between 20 and 30 missions over Syria in the previous few months.

While former Canadian diplomat Ferry de Kerckhove said it was unlikely Russia would risk shooting down a coalition aircraft, Canadian or otherwise, he worried about the increasing rhetoric and tension in Syria.

“This is very dangerous,” he said. “And if it rises, they could certainly be caught in the middle. If we’re talking about an escalation in the tension, there could be some concern for the Canadians, absolutely.”

The Trudeau government is reviewing possible changes to Canada’s mission against ISIL, whose current mandate is set to expire at the end of the month.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has said the new mission will not include sending troops into Syria, but has not otherwise commented on whether the Auroras and Polaris will stay in the region.

Monday’s tensions between Russia and the U.S. erupted after a U.S. fighter jet shot down a Syrian warplane, the first such incident in Syria’s more than six-year-old civil war.

Canada also has 200 special forces troops in northern Iraq, along with a helicopter detachment and a combat hospital.

American officials say the Syrian jet dropped bombs close to U.S.-backed forces fighting near the city of Raqqa, which serves as ISIL’s de facto capital.

The U.S. has been providing air and ground support to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a collection of different groups that have been the U.S. government’s main partners in the fight against ISIL in Syria.

But the Syrian military said its Su-22 fighter jet was flying a mission against ISIL. Russia, which has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful backer, condemned the downing of the plane.

The Russian defence ministry went on to say in a statement that all aircraft belonging to the U.S.-led coalition operating west of the Euphrates “will be tracked by the Russian (surface-to-air missile) systems as targets.”

Tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Syria are not new, but have so far been peacefully managed.

The most recent was in April when the U.S. fired missiles at a Syrian air base following a chemical weapons attack that Washington blamed on the Assad government.

In response, Russia temporarily suspended a hotline intended to prevent midair incidents with the U.S. over Syria.